Within five months of November’s voter repeal, Idaho lawmakers resurrected elements of each of defeated Propositions 1, 2 and 3.
During the 88-day legislative session that adjourned April 4, legislators passed bills or budgets addressing collective bargaining and labor agreements, merit pay, classroom technology and dual credits for high school students completing graduation requirements early.
In November, more than 57 percent of voters repealed the props – the three Students Come First laws passed during the 2011 legislative session. But lawmakers and state officials said there were unintended consequences to repeal. They argued the laws were so broad and vast voters could not have realized what killing the laws entailed.
“(Voters) didn’t have the option of voting for one or two things from Proposition 1,” Gov. Butch Otter said. “They had to accept the whole thing or reject the whole thing.”
Before the session was over, lawmakers passed bills that:
- Limit the life of salary and benefit portions of master agreements to one year.
- Require negotiations between teachers’ unions and school boards be held in public.
- Require teachers unions to prove – if asked by a board – that they represent a majority of educators.
- Provide money for grants for schools seeking to expand technology, such as laptops or mobile devices, in the classroom.
- Set aside merit pay funding for educators, based on district standards.
One proposal, House Bill 65, won bipartisan support and stakeholder backing, and provided districts more than $30 million they had planned on before the November repeal. The bill also unfroze movement of the teachers’ salary grid, earmarked $842,400 for dual credit courses and returned more than $4.8 million to hire more math and science teachers — all elements of the defeated Students Come First laws.
That’s not to say education groups and lawmakers reached agreement in every instance. In fact, they clashed often.
Some said the voters had spoken and the conversation is over. Others said there were positive elements of Students Come First, that Idaho schools still need reform and they needed to “undo” some damage from repeal.
In the end, lawmakers said they struggled with drawing a line between the voters’ call for repeal and the reality of killing more than 56 pages of legislation.
“There were significantly more things in that legislation than almost anyone could understand, and an example of that is the financial implications,” said. Sen. Dean Mortimer, an Idaho Falls Republican who sits on the education and budget committees. “They knew there were some major things in the bills they objected to, and we heard that. But what the citizenry said, what we also heard, was that education needs to be worked on.”
Some said efforts to bring elements of the defeated laws back went too far. During the session, the Idaho Education Association and Democrats vigorously opposed several collective bargaining bills pushed by the Idaho School Boards Association.
Paul Stark, general counsel for the statewide teachers union, said voters completely understood the decisions they made. He emphasized that point March 26, when testifying in front of the House Education Committee.
“I’ll ask this body to recognize the voice of the people last November and not just cut and paste the repealed law back into existence,” Stark said.
After the session, Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said lawmakers were too quick to replace some of the defeated laws.
“I was disappointed to watch majority party members ignore the will of voters and reinstitute the ‘Luna laws’ overwhelmingly rejected by voters last November,” Stennett said. “It would have been much wiser to let the governor’s school task force find consensus and seek input from teachers, parents and students.”
All of this year’s action on the education front took place as Republican Senate leaders attempted move past buzzwords and labeling used to attack the defeated reform laws. In a letter to education stakeholders this session, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, asked opponents to stop using the term “Luna laws” to describe elements of the propositions.
“I found recipients (of the letter)…. wanting to elevate the political conversation,” Davis said. “Tom Luna is a good man, and it’s OK to disagree with him as to what is or is not in best interest of children in the classroom. It is not OK, in my opinion to devolve the conversation to pejorative expression or ad hominem attacks.”
Even so, this same Legislature sometimes uses “Obamacare” in pejorative ways to describe President Obama’s health reform laws. Davis pointed out that Obama has embraced the phrase, but he said he still temporarily halts debate if members use the term.
“We did, on the Senate floor try to encourage different speech,” Davis said.
Reflecting on the repeal, Davis said lawmakers attempted to honor voters by not touching the elements that were debated most loudly during the 2012 campaign. He specifically said lawmakers did not revive proposals for computing devices for all high school students, mandates for online courses and limits on individual teachers’ continuing contracts.
Otter said lawmakers and stakeholders did a good job winning support for elements of Students Come First laws that did return.
“There were eight bills that addressed parts of 1 or parts of 2 and 3 that received either bipartisan or unanimous support,” Otter said. “That’s valuable in the legislative process.”
Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna singled out ISBA executive director Karen Echeverria as one of several education “leaders” during the session, saying she did a great job of amending labor bills that initially faced opposition.
“(The labor bills) had public hearings, and they were well vetted,” Luna said. “In many cases there was a three-month conversation about them and they became law.”
Luna also said he and lawmakers learned a lesson from the repeal — that proposals should be considered in individual pieces that can stand or fall on their own.
“This wasn’t one comprehensive bill like what was in Prop 1,” Luna said. “It was any number of separate bills that had separate hearings and were debated on separately. That’s a process people have expected and wanted.”